Don’t Forget to Twist the Knife
You remember the first time you were betrayed. At first, it took you a moment to realize what had happened. That that was something people did to one another. And then, there was this great sucking hole in your chest. You could feel the wind and everything. But when you looked up, they didn’t even care.
And then they turned and walked away. You called after them something like, “Then you should have died! Died, rather than betray your friends, as we would have done for you!” But when they glanced back, it was with such a look of distain and incomprehension that you weren’t sure how you’d ever trusted them, how you couldn’t have seen it coming. I mean, they didn’t even get that Harry Potter reference. How would you ever be whole again?
Betrayal is a powerful thing—a taboo across cultures—and its forms are legion. It was hard to decide how to best categorize betrayal for my article. It’s such a monstrous topic that choosing what parts to put in and what to leave out would prove no easy task. But that’s the challenge every novelist faces with every page of their book, so I could hardly shirk from the challenge.
The important bits about the mechanics were, as I saw it:
- Who is doing the betraying? Is it a person or a group?
- Likewise, who is being betrayed? A person or a group?
- What is the relationship between the betrayer and the betrayed?
- What is the motivation behind the betrayal?
But, perhaps more important than the mechanics was the aftermath:
- How is the betrayed affected by the betrayal?
- How is the reader affected by the betrayal?
- How is the betrayer affected by the betrayal?
- How is everyone else affected by the betrayal?
It looks so simple, written out like that. In two sets of four. But it is all incredibly nuanced. The betrayal can be self-sacrificial or selfish. Often betrayers are villains, but sometimes, they are allies, whose weakness serves to illustrate the strength of the hero. Once in a while, they are the hero, betraying out of necessity, or a villain who comes upon a conscience and sacrifices themselves for their newfound cause. And sometimes, the betrayer is actually the society a person lives in, and sometimes the thing betrayed is ones country, making one a traitor—or a hero, if you look at it from the other side. Sacrifice, as a tool, tends to buy belief.
And that’s not even going into the aftermath.
I chose to write about the motivations behind betrayal in my Writer’s Don’t Cry column because I think it is the most interesting and varied aspect of betrayal, but it was a near thing between that and categorizing betrayals by their affect on the reader’s perceptions of events. A well-placed betrayal can make you realize and value the strength of those who did not break. If we are defined by our choices, choosing loyalty to ones friends over betrayal is one of the most important choices one can make.
And it must be said, a good turning-down-of-the-easy-road-to-stand-by-your-friends scene will get me every time. Yes, I’m a sucker for buddy films.
But I’ll leave that for another column, and stick to character-motivation for this one, because hopefully, if I’ve done it right, the motivations behind a betrayal lead one to explore the affects of a betrayal on all involved. Including, of course, the reader.
Check it out here: Make it Sting: How to Write Betrayal